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"Jewish Christians" and Mu'awiya: A Story from Adomnán
When considering antiquity, late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, it is worth pondering the basis for terms we may regularly use in our narratives and analyses of those periods and whether they are used or reflected in the sources of those times. For example, to my knowledge, the exact formulation ‘Western Roman Empire’ (Latin: e.g. imperium Romanum occidentale) is not used in an ancient source from the time it existed (up to 476/480 CE). On the other hand, the term is suitable in describing the division of the realms of the Roman Empire in late antiquity into two imperial courts that were de facto independent of each other even as there was nominally still one empire.
Another term of interest to consider is “Jewish Christians.” I came across this matter in an academic article I recently had to translate into Arabic. The article, published in 2021, entitled “The Deadlocked Debate about the Role of the Jewish Christians at the Birth of Islam” and written by the Spanish scholar Francisco del Río Sánchez, discusses some of the academic debate about whether “Jewish Christians” had an influence on the birth of Islam. He notes that there is no precise and agreed definition of this term but that it has been used to refer to those individuals or groups who believed Jesus was a prophetic, messianic or even divine figure but observed the Torah in part or in full.
While he notes that there is no evidence for the existence of “differentiated and hidden Jewish-Christian communities” in Arabia or the Middle East during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, he notes nonetheless that some sort of terminology along those lines may be useful to describe those who were located somewhere in between the poles of ‘conventional’ Judaism and Christianity, and existed in the Middle East even during the later years of the Umayyads (early to mid eighth century CE). It would then be worth considering how “mixed sensibilities, practices and beliefs” in this very large middle ground might be reflected in Islam’s foundational texts like the Qur’an.
With regards to the specific term “Jewish Christian,” Sánchez notes that there is a such a formulation in a source from the late seventh century CE: namely, in the work ‘De Locis Sanctis’ (“Concerning the Holy Sites”) by the Scottish Gaelic writer Adomnán (Adamnanus). In the work, Adomnán relates a story about a shroud with which Jesus’ head had been covered, and a dispute about ownership of the shroud between the “Iudaei Christiani” (ablative plural form: “Iudaeis Christianis,” which is the inflectional form used in the text) and the “infidel Jews” (referred to by formulations in the text such as “infideles Iudaei”- ablative plural form infidelibus Iudaeis, which is the inflectional form in the text). The two disputing parties resort to the arbitration of “Mauvias king of the Saracens” (i.e. the caliph Mu’awiya (I?)) who throws the shroud into the fire in a bid to see which party the shroud rightfully belongs to. The shroud then miraculously comes out of the fire unscathed and descends on the ‘faithful,’ who rejoice and place it in the storage of the church.
“Iudaei Christiani” can literally be translated as “Jewish Christians.” Yet on reading the whole story myself, it seems to me that the meaning of the formulation here is unlikely to be the one alluded to in the second paragraph of this post, but perhaps just means Christians of Jewish ethnic origin (i.e. Jews who formally converted and/or their descendants), or Christians of Jewish and non-Jewish ethnic origin who are now deemed the ‘real Jews’ in having believed in Christ and thus undertaken the new covenant as opposed to the Jews who have rejected Christ. Yet these readings are by no means certain, and thus as Sánchez concludes it seems that “Jewish Christians” in the sense alluded to earlier is a modern construction.
Since the whole story as related in Adómnan’s work (De Locis Sanctis 1.9) is interesting, I have decided to translate it in full here, while providing the original text, the edition of which is taken from Itinera Hierosolymitana Saeculi IIII-VIII (ed. Paul Geyer, 1898):
Concerning the shroud with which the head of the buried Lord was covered
As for the sacrosanct shroud of the Lord, which had been placed in the tomb over his head, through the report of the holy Arculfus (who has seen the shroud with his own eyes) we have come to know of this story that we now write and which the whole population of Jerusalem claims to be true. For the holy Arculfus learned of this claim through the testimony of very many believing citizens of Jerusalem, who, while he himself listened rather intently, thus declared quite often and said:
Around three years ago, the sacrosanct cloth was found through the Lord’s bestowal after many cycles of years and thus came to the attention of the whole population. A quite proper believing Jew had stolen it from the Lord’s tomb immediately after his resurrection and had hidden it with himself for many days. So the happy and believing thief brought and showed the Lord’s shroud (which he thievishly stole in the beginning) to his two sons whom he had summoned when he was in his last days, and he said to them: “Oh my dear sons, now a choice is given to you. So let each of the two of you say, what he rather desires to choose, so that I also may be able to know without doubt, which of you will be the one to whom, per his own choice, I should either commend all my material possession that I have, or only this holy shroud of the Lord.”
Hearing these words from the mouth of their father, the one who chose to receive all his father’s riches received them from his brother, commended as they were by their father under his testament in accordance with the promise he had made. It is wondrous to say: from that day all his wealth and all his patrimony, for the sake of which he sold the Lord’s shroud, began to decrease, and all that he had was lost through various mishaps and thus reduced to nothing. As for the other blessed son of the aforementioned blessed thief, who preferred the Lord’s shroud to all the patrimony, from the day he received it from his dying father’s hand, his assets grew more and more and through the Lord’s bestowal he also became enriched with earthly wealth and was not cheated of heavenly wealth.
Thus was the Lord’s shroud commended by the fathers to their sons, born as they were from the seed of the same thrice-blessed man, as though by hereditary right from the faithful to the faithful in accordance with the family lineage. They faithfully did this up to the fifth generation. However, after the times of the fifth generation, with many years having passed by, the faithful heirs of the same kin passed away, and thus the sacred cloth came into the hands of some infidel Jews, who, although unworthy of such a gift, nonetheless embraced it in an honorific way and through the bestowal of divine largess they were very much enriched with various forms of wealth and thus became wealthy. But when a certain report arose among the people about the Lord’s shroud, the believing Jews began to engage in intense quarrel with the infidel Jews about that sacred cloth, and sought with all their strength to take it into their hands.
This sustained quarrel divided the people of Jerusalem into two parties: i.e. the faithful believers agains the disbelieving infidels. Hence the king of the Saracens called Mu’awiya was petitioned by both parties. Judging between both sides, he thus said in the presence of the Jewish Christians to the disbelieving Jews who were pertinaciously keeping hold of the Lord’s shroud: “Give into my hand the sacred cloth you have.” Obeying the king’s word, they brought it forth from a chest and laid it on the king’s lap. Taking it with much reverence, the king ordered for a pyre to be put in place in the broad street in the presence of the entire people. While it burned with intensely, he rose and approached the pyre and he said to the two disagreeing parties in an elevated voice: “Now as Christ the Saviour of the World suffered for the human race and had this shroud (which I now hold in my lap) placed over his head in his tomb, let the fire through its flame judge between you as you quarrel about this same cloth. Thus we should know, to which party of these two contending armies it deigns to give a gift such as this.”
Saying these words, he cast forth the Lord’s holy shroud into the flames. The fire could no touch it in any way, but rather it rose whole and unscathed from the pyre and began to fly on high like a bird with wings stretched out. It looked forth from on high on both parties of the people who were at odds with each other and the two sedentary battle-lines that were seemingly engaged in a battle of war, and it flew around in the empty air for some moments. Then it gradually descended, and through God’s judgement, it turned towards the party of the Christians who were in the meantime imploring Christ the judge, and it rested in their lap.
Giving to God with their hands raised to the sky and kneeling with great delight, they received with great reverence the Lord’s shroud: the venerable gift that had been sent to them from the sky. They also rendered hymns of praises to Christ who granted it, and they wrapped the cloth in another cloth and put it in the coffer of the church. Our brother Arculfus saw it raised from the coffer on another day and amid the multitude of the people who were kissing it, he himself managed to kiss it in the church assembly. It is around eight feet in length. Let these words suffice about it.